Constitutions are the fundamental laws that establish governments. They also limit the state’s authority, and create government obligations. Let’s learn more about them!
The history of modern constitutions is actually older than the history of modern democracy. The Vikings wrote the first modern constitution in 1000 CE (Common Era). When the constitution of the United States was written in 1787, only a few countries had one. During the twentieth century, however, more and more countries wrote constitutions. In fact, 70 percent of the constitutions used today were written after 1945, and between 1990 and 1995 ninety-six countries wrote new constitutions. For the rest of this video, we will learn how a constitution establishes the government, limits the state’s authority, and creates government obligations.
One way we can compare countries is by analyzing the types of governments that different constitutions establish. Democratic constitutions usually establish states with divided or shared authority. For example, in Japan the legislature, cabinet, and courts have different kinds of authority. This is often called “separation of powers,” and its purpose is to protect against tyranny. If one part of the government had all the authority, it would be easy for it to rule in its own interest. When a small group of leaders or a single political party rules for its own interest, we call it “authoritarian.” Today, most countries in the world are either democratic or authoritarian.
We can also compare how the constitutions of different countries limit states’ authority. As we learned in the previous lesson, people who live in modern democracies have rights. Their rights are actually limits on the state’s authority. The things that people are free to have or do cannot be limited or taken away by the state. Another way a constitution limits a state’s authority is by prohibiting the state from having or doing something. For example, the constitution of Costa Rica prohibits the Costa Rican state from having an army, and the constitution of the Philippines prohibits the state there from making war. The Japanese constitution shares the same two limits on state authority.
A third way we can study constitutions is by comparing the government obligations that they establish. Anything the government must do is an obligation. Whereas the type of government a state has determines its political system, the type of obligations a state has determines its social system. Obligations usually include providing education for young people, welfare for poor people, and social security for old people. For example, the constitution of Sweden obligates the government to provide health, employment, housing, education, and social security. Countries like Sweden are called “social democracies.” In the USA, by comparison, the constitution emphasizes rights more than obligations. That type of democracy is called “liberal democracy.”
Analyzing constitutions is a good way to compare different countries because almost every modern country has one. The most important thing a constitution does is to establish the government. How it distributes authority determines the type of government a country has. Constitutions also limit the authority of the state. They do that through rights and prohibitions. Finally, many constitutions establish the obligations of the government. Those obligations are usually social provisions such as education, welfare, and social security. A constitution establishes the political and social system within a country.